Sprewell bolted out of a slump and scored 13 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter - including a huge basket with 15 seconds remaining - to lead the surging Knicks to a 97-93 victory over the Detroit Pistons.
The Knicks (31-38) won for the third time in four games as they surpassed last season’s victory total and moved within two games of the Milwaukee Bucks (33-36) for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth.
“We understand that every game is big,” said Sprewell, who led the team in scoring for the first time in seven games. “We’re excited about our chances. We obviously want to play as hard as we can to give ourselves that shot at it. You look up at the scoreboard and you see Milwaukee down 20 points in the second quarter, you say, `Hey, we win this one, we’re gonna pick up some ground.’”
Sprewell usually shares the scoring load with guard Allan Houston but had taken a back seat of late. Over his previous five games, he was averaging just 12 points on 19-of-66 shooting while Houston carried the offense, averaging 32 points.
This one looked like more of the same as Houston scored 17 points in the first half while Sprewell managed just five as the Knicks found themselves in a 54-50 hole. But Sprewell used his trademark energy to create offense - first for his teammates, then for himself.
“You just gotta keep plugging away,” Sprewell said. “The biggest thing was I was able to get rebounds and steals and make plays for other guys, so you start to feel better about yourself on the floor. You start to feel like you’re contributing.”
Sprewell’s activity on the defensive end helped the Knicks take a 72-65 lead into the fourth quarter, where he took charge of the offense. He scored 13 of New York’s last 18 points over the final eight-plus minutes, and his last two were the biggest.
After Cliff Robinson made two free throws to pull the Pistons within 95-93 with 39 seconds to go, Sprewell ended up with the ball on the left block. With the shot clock running down, he spun toward the baseline and nearly out of bounds before putting up a soft shot that caught the rim and dropped in.
“It really wasn’t a great shot because I was fading,” he said. “But at that point, you gotta get the ball in the air, and I got a great bounce and it was able to trickle in.”
The Pistons missed a couple of desperation shots and lost for the seventh time in their last eight road games. They still top the East with a 43-25 mark.
“It is a tough way to try to make a living on the road by getting behind 10 and trying to claw your way back into it,” Pistons coach Rick Carlisle said.
Sprewell made 8-of-16 shots, including 3-of-4 from the arc. He added nine rebounds, five assists and three steals as he appeared to be part of every key play in the second half.
Houston scored 19 points for the Knicks, who had five players in double figures. Othella Harrington added 14, Clarence Weatherspoon 11 and Howard Eisley 10, seven assists and six steals.
The Knicks made 11 steals, not counting the stolen glances at the scoreboard.
“A couple of guys made each other aware of the scoreboard,” Houston said. “Milwaukee was losing, so we wanted to make sure we did everything we could to give ourselves a chance to win this one.”
Richard Hamilton scored 27s point and Corliss Williamson added 14 off the bench for Detroit, which split the four-game season series with New York. Ben Wallace grabbed 18 rebounds, ending his streak of 20-plus games at five.
Chauncey Billups, who had been averaging more than 26 points in his last nine games, was held to 10 on 2-of-12 shooting. He missed a 3-pointer with 1:18 left that would have given Detroit the lead.
“I thought they did a good job,” said Billups, who spent the first half trying to get his teammates involved in the offense. “When I tried to get into the game offensively, it just wouldn’t go down for me.”
“It’s hard for any player to keep up that kind of pace,” Carlisle said.
After Billups missed, the Knicks again found themselves scrambling against the shot clock. With NBA blocked shots leader Wallace coming at him, Weatherspoon faked, took one dribble and calmly knocked in a 15-footer for a 95-91 lead with 55 seconds to go.
The Knicks began the third quarter by forcing five stright turnovers by the Pistons and taking a 58-54 lead. Two free throws by Sprewell gave New York the lead for good and he added a runner for a 64-60 lead midway through the period, firing up the near-sellout crowd.
“He’s a guy who gets the whole building behind him,” Sprewell said. “When he starts cooking, everybody gets real emotional up there. It’s loud. Everybody’s behind them. They start setting harder picks. I sensed that. They fed off of him and he did a great job getting it going a little bit.”
Hamilton was the only Piston to make a basket in the third quarter, which ended with a 6-0 run by the Knicks that opened a 75-68 lead.
“In the third quarter, we just didn’t quite match their energy,” said Carlisle, whose team committed 10 of its 19 turnovers in the period.
In the fourth quarter, Sprewell found his offense, hitting a pair of 3-pointers around a three-point play by Weatherspoon to make it 89-79 with 6:27 to play.
He added an up-and-under shot and a pull-up jumper to keep the advantage at 93-84 with 4:13 left before the Pistons staged a late rally that was squelched by Weatherspoon and Sprewell.
“Sprewell hit a very tough shot at the end and got a bounce,” Carlisle said. “Weatherspoon hit a big shot from the other side when we were really surging. You gotta give them credit. They made plays when they had to.”
The Pistons have lost 17 of their last 20 visits to Madison Square Garden.